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Entries in Watchmen (1)

Thursday
Nov112010

Story or Soap Opera?

When I was a kid I remember loving comic books, but my love was always left more or less unrequited. I'd pick up a copy of this or that, spending what was to me a significant sum, read it in a blaze and be left hanging in the middle of the story. There never seemed to be an end!"Nothing ever ends"

And that's what I'd like to write about today, because it seems as well to be a theme among writers of Fantasy and SF: the never ending storyline. Of course, there are franchises like Star Trek that are essentially episodic in character, with little to no overarching story arc that pulls them all together. Then each episode functions like a self-contained story, with its own one hour arc, and little to nothing bleeds from one hour into the next. Each is a little bubble unto itself.

That's fine, so far as it goes. It's a trope used in many superhero-type genres going back past James Bond, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew to any number of early TV and radio serials to characters like Sherlock Holmes.

Since those stories are self-contained, they give the reader the satisfaction of an ending, even if they exist within a larger, fantastic arc without boundary. 

My concern here is more with the neverending story that we get in some N-volume (for large N) Fantasy and SF series, from some comic franchises and (of course) from Soap Operas. Because one thing that's essential in any satisfying narrative is that it have a beginning, a middle and an end. Series that rise on without clear upper bound cheat the reader of that pleasure.

It's no coincidence that Watchmen, perhaps the greatest superhero comic of all time, has a very clear and tight story arc.

Babylon 5 also had the virtue of just such a story arc, worked out in advance from beginning through a five year series to its finish. Though the arc didn't come out quite as nicely as planned, at least it came out, as a fully formed work of art, not incidentally almost entirely from a single pen, that of the gifted JM Straczynski.Straczynski's Masterpiece

I find it hard, though, to commit to watching the first episode or buying the first book of what I already know is an unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable series of N or 2N books. Though pick-your-author may be very good indeed, there are plenty of fish in the sea and I'd really prefer to read around, thank you, and get some endings with my beginnings.

(It's just as bad to have an ending cobbled together unconvincingly as it is not to have one at all. Truly functional endings come organically from their storylines, which means they need to have been planned out in advance).

I know why they want the stories to go on, of course. It's the way authors and publishers make a good living. And doubtless some of these long series will wrap up nicely, though others will likely be left hanging, or perhaps continue into the indefinite future as Soap Operas do.

But for me, I'll have to know a six book series is really a heck of a lot better than six single books before I start on it. Because that's a lot of time to invest in something that may turn out badly. And sorry, but I really don't want to get involved with a narrative that I can't be sure will have an ending.